Saturday, January 16, 2010

St. Berard and Companions (d. 1220)

Preaching the gospel is often dangerous work. Leaving one’s homeland and adjusting to new cultures, governments and languages is difficult enough; but martyrdom sometimes caps all the other sacrifices. In 1219 with the blessing of St. Francis, Berard left Italy with Peter, Adjute, Accurs, Odo and Vitalis to preach in Morocco. En route in Spain Vitalis became sick and commanded the other friars to continue their mission without him. They tried preaching in Seville, then in Muslim hands, but made no converts. They went on to Morocco where they preached in the marketplace. The friars were immediately apprehended and ordered to leave the country; they refused. When they began preaching again, an exasperated sultan ordered them executed. After enduring severe beatings and declining various bribes to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ, the friars were beheaded by the sultan himself on January 16, 1220. These were the first Franciscan martyrs. When Francis heard of their deaths, he exclaimed, "Now I can truly say that I have five Friars Minor!" Their relics were brought to Portugal where they prompted a young Augustinian canon to join the Franciscans and set off for Morocco the next year. That young man was Anthony of Padua. These five martyrs were canonized in 1481.
Before St. Francis, the Rules of religious orders made no mention of preaching to the Muslims. In the Rule of 1223, Francis wrote: "Those brothers who, by divine inspiration, desire to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers should ask permission from their ministers provincial. But the ministers should not grant permission except to those whom they consider fit to be sent" (Chapter 12).

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark (2:13-17 )

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector's booth. Follow me, Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: Why does he eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'? On hearing this, Jesus said to them, It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

When we think of the hero, we think of someone who had done a most notable good deed despite a great cost. A soldier has fallen, but is still alive and is under the line of fire. With bullets whizzing so close as almost to be felt, the priest crawls towards the stricken young man. He reaches him and gives him the last rites, and then begins to drag him towards shelter. The chaplain is hit and he shudders. But he keeps struggling on, dragging his dying companion. The chaplain is hit again, this time more seriously. His companions are anxiously awaiting him some twenty yards off, praying he will make it. He struggles ahead, pulling himself and his moaning burden along. He is hit again. He dies a hero and is later awarded the highest honours posthumously. All recognize that he was a man of heroic virtue in a moment of mortal danger, for he was prepared to forego life itself for the sake of a true good. True, but our danger is that we can identify heroism with public and observable heroism. The chaplain could only have summoned the resources to do what he did if he had been faithful - heroic - in his unobserved everyday duties. Or again, we are in a notorious concentration camp during the Second World War. There has been an escape, and the camp officials have decreed that several of the prisoners are to be executed in reprisal and as a disincentive for any future attempts. One of those selected to die breaks down in loud tears, speaking of his wife and children whom he is leaving. Silently another man from the ranks of the prisoners steps forward and asks to take his place. His offer is accepted and he goes on to die in the starvation bunker. He is the priest - and his name is Maximilian Kolbe, now a canonized saint. His act of heroism was but the culmination of a life of hidden fidelity - heroism, we might say - in everyday service of God. The essential point is our rising to the call of duty as conscience presents it. If we do this, duty will call us on and on, leading us to the heights. The hand of the Lord will be with us, but it all depends on our "yes!"

In one passage of the Gospel a very good young man comes eagerly to Jesus to ask him what he must do to gain entry into heaven. Our Lord replies that he must keep the Ten Commandments. He has always kept these, he responds - what more is needed? His good life was manifest, and our Lord looked on him with love. Imagine that! Our Lord looked on him with love. The young man was the object of our Lord’s special friendship. If you want to be perfect, our Lord said, sell all, give to the poor, and follow me. It was a gentle call, full of marvellous promise, but the young man drew back. He could not bring himself to forego his wealth. He may have become a saint, a great friend of God. But he failed to take this path of heroism. It all happened in a moment, and this bright moment was gone, gone forever. Our scene changes to the Gospel passage of today and our Lord has just finished speaking to a large crowd by the lake. He has noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, and as he walks along he pauses at the tax collector’s booth. Follow me, is all he said, gazing at Levi. We must presume that Levi was also a man of some wealth because of his profession. We notice that in the same passage Levi held a banquet in his home, so the home was big enough to accommodate the function. He also had a lot of his colleagues there, which may indicate some position on his part among this class of persons. He had means, but we read that he "got up and followed him." He allowed nothing to hold him back from the call he had just received. Grace came to him and sustained his decision to have Christ for his life. There was another tax collector - and his name was Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in Jericho, and our Lord invited himself to dine at Zacchaeus’s home. Zacchaeus rose immediately to the occasion, converted and became, we may presume, a disciple of Christ. In each of these cases, the imminent possibility was that attachments to the goods of this life - such as material wealth - could have stymied the call of duty and of God. But the call was accepted.

Every day there are numerous calls of duty. We must refine and educate our consciences so as to hear the calls of duty aright. That said, the critical thing is to accept this call whatever be the cost. If in the little duties of everyday life, made manifest by the requirements of our state in life, we forego what we prefer, then we shall be led along the path of hidden heroism. Levi the son of Alphaeus took that step. He heard the call and immediately accepted it. That is what we should do - but not only in the big things that may be noticed. Our heroism, sustained by the grace of God, is to be the heroism of obedience to God in the little ordinary duties of everyday life.

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